Angela Souza, Alumna of Case Western Reserve University
A few Saturdays ago, I awoke excited and energetic. It was a sunny, January day, and the temperature was higher than was initially forecast. You know, it was one of those rare, ‘warm,’ winter days that remind you that spring is on the horizon. Or in my mother’s words, it was “get-sick” weather.
Immediately, I thought about all the day’s possibilities. I could finally visit one of the local museums. But no, not that museum with my children, because if they’re loud, we’ll probably get stares. Or, I could ask one of my girlfriends out for coffee. But it must be one that’s loud enough to drown out our conversation – I just hate the looks that we get when they overhear our charged discussions of race, politics, you know…
In the middle of my planning, I stopped and checked myself. I realized that I had been checking off spaces and places that I could go. Not only was this limiting my life, but it was a jail of my own making. I told myself where I could and couldn’t, should or shouldn’t go because of how uncomfortable it made me feel as a black person set against a sea of whiteness.
When did this happen to me? And how?
It’s not like I’m not down for the culture. I’ve always been that girl. I’m from a black neighbor(hood), was president of my university’s black Greek council, had an Ethnic Studies minor in undergrad, did the big chop (and never looked back), wrote and published several articles about black issues and culture, littered my house with Barack and Michelle children’s books for my boys, embellished my social profiles with #blackgirlmagic and #blacklivesmatter posts, and also felt joy when Don Lemon clapped back at America’s foolishness, subsequently earning back his invitation to the family cookout.
At some point in my life, I experienced a…shift. There was an undercurrent. Perhaps that’s the best way to describe it. There was a shift in my behavior and ideology that was so slight, so gradual that it was able to fly under my radar. I found myself feeling a lot more self-conscious in certain situations. I felt more insecure around certain groups of people. It felt like a loss of control.
If I felt like blasting my music one day in the car…if I decided to rock a hot septum ring that I got for my piercing (that I usually keep hidden)…if I wanted to have an impassioned conversation at a bar or restaurant…basically, if I felt like being who I am, what I am, all of me, in this skin – this black skin. How would I be perceived? Would I be allowed to be ALL of me? Or would I be diminished, stereotyped, degraded? And of course, I already knew the answers to these questions. It shouldn’t matter, but it did. All of it did. It mattered to me in a way that it had never mattered before, and I wondered why.
Whereas it once was easy to talk on end about race and oppression, and “living while black” as a college student, it got harder to discuss and simultaneously live those things as a real-world adult.
In short, it was a lot easier to talk about glass ceilings, racism, and exclusion in a seminar than it was while simultaneously working in corporate America where those things became lived experiences. It was easier to talk about what I would or wouldn’t do in certain situations as a college kid, but years later, when I added in variables like kids, bills, colleagues, suburbs, neighbors, and expectations, things got hella complicated.
After moving into a new, predominantly white neighborhood with my family, and being welcomed by a group of incredibly friendly, white neighbors, one of them paid me a compliment.
“You are so beautiful,” said the sweet, middle-aged woman with complete sincerity. “You have such an…” uh oh, I could feel the microaggression coming, “…exotic look. Oh my, is that okay to say?”
“No. It’s not! I’m not exotic. I’m from East Cleveland. EAST. CLEVELAND. The hood. There are several women – SEVERAL – who look exactly like me. I. look. different. than. you. That’s all. Dassit.”
All things I could have said. Instead…
“That’s fine. Thank you,” I reply. Old white lady smiles sweetly, and walks away, happy that she made a new (BLACK) friend. A part of me leaves with her. I could have checked her. I could have simply said “No, please don’t call me that.” But in that split-second moment, I decided that it was easier to swallow it than to create a tense situation. I chose her comfort over my discomfort. The “woke” me chose to stay sleep to maintain the false semblance of normalcy.
I don’t know if I’m writing about microaggressions, or selling out, or being “woke” (seriously, I hate that term), or what. I’m tired. This is the plight of blackness. This is the pervasive evil that is white supremacy. I’m forced to watch myself as I plunge a knife into my own heart. And then twist it. In the words of brother James Baldwin, “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.”